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Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter VI Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter VI
by Prof. Ernesto Paolozzi
2013-03-14 10:01:48
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Chapter VI
Methodological Liberalism

Croce’s political thought, even if always connected to the problematic of freedom, because of the enormity of references and the questions he dealt with, did not create particular interest in the liberal world. Croce’s adherence to Giolitti seemed more tied to a particular form of government than to a true ideology. In the same way Croce’s concrete political commitment first as deputy commissioner of the Municipality of Naples, as Senator, and later as Minister of Education in 1921, did not take on that tone that usually connotes the activity of a leader. Furthermore, and perhaps this is the most important aspect, Croce’s philosophy, his historicism, and Marxist and Hegelian origins, were somehow foreign to the classical tradition of liberalism which was clearly empiricist. The real turn came with the advent of dictatorship. After an initial phase of uncertainty, especially after Matteotti’s murder, Croce passed to the opposition, drawing up, at Giovanni Amendola’s instigation, the Manifest of the anti-fascists intellectuals and, later, with memorable speeches in the Senate, he became the voice of strong dissent of the Italian anti-fascist culture. He became the symbol of the moral and cultural resistance to despotism both in Italy and abroad. Once the war was over, he took part in the reconstruction of the Italian government and founded the Liberal party, of which he became the President. In these twenty-five years, in a variety of writings for various occasions, Croce elaborated what we could define as a more stringent acknowledgment of the themes tied to his philosophy of liberty. These are the years when the metapolitical theory of freedom was conceived, which introduced liberalism as a general conception of life, beyond the single economic, political and judicial doctrine that constituted the history of the liberal movement.

Once liberalism is understood not only as an historically determined political movement but as an ethico-political expression of a general conception or idea of liberty, the traditional relations among the various political movements change. From what has been said in previous chapters, it will be clear why liberty for Croce, which is the ethical force that moves history in a perpetual struggle against negative value, against raw and green vitality, cannot be exhausted in this or that determined party, movement or specific doctrine. For instance, the doctrine of natural law has been a decisive movement for the affirmation of the rights to freedom for millions of men and women, but not for this reason it can be considered the sole liberal theory, the point of arrival, the goal of the struggle for freedom. If it were not so, liberalism would have exhausted its drive by having been, at least partially, realized and could have hardly resisted the many criticisms of its adversaries, by being transformed as a preservation force. Liberty and the unceasing struggle for its concrete realization, do not recognize similar limitations.

Therefore, the terms of Croce’s polemic against Einaudi and Ropke, on the issue of whether liberalism could or should be identified with the so-called market economy or economic free-trade, result more clear now. While Croce, in his concrete political life, never denied the importance of market economy, he could not but point out that freedom can, theoretically, co-exist with other forms of economy and, we could add that, unfortunately, a free-trading society does not guarantee in itself political, juridical and moral freedom. One can, I believe, assert with some confidence that history proved Croce right. Many examples from Statist and social-democratic Sweden in the seventies, to free-trading and authoritarian Chile of those same years, prove that freedom is not necessarily tied to an economic system. Free-traders, in some ways, make Marx’s same mistake who absolutized economy as the sole motor cause of history. On the other hand, there are no pure economic systems. There are only concrete political economies that are subject to the always new and unforeseeable conditions dictated by history.

Thus, one could define Croce’s liberalism as a methodological liberalism as is, after all, his entire philosophy that he calls a methodology of history. The term “method” can also help resolve many of the ambiguities created by the definition “metapolitical theory of freedom.” From here, in fact, derive the many misunderstandings and accusations of metaphysicism, abstractism, and contempt for institutional empiricism. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Liberals (and they are in the majority) who persist in elevating to a single liberal doctrine a particular political or economic program end up by abstracting from complex reality only a part of it. These doctrines are put forward in the schematic form of logical reasoning joined together and perfect in their form so that at first they seem extremely concrete because exact but, as we saw, they are really abstract. Croce’s liberalism, instead, is a method of interpretation of reality and, at the same time, a regulatory idea of reality itself. In this sense, and only in this sense, it is possible to rethink the concept of freedom as utopia, meaning by it the moral rule one intends to follow, and for whose realization one organizes always new concrete politics. One can rethink, historically, new institutional models; parties, unions, associations are founded; laws are promoted; if the need arises one fights and one struggles to abolish privilege, old institutions, surpassed laws. A very concrete liberalism, therefore, and not at all metaphysical. Croce does not always explain these concepts thoroughly but only here and there in occasional writings and interventions.

Another points needs to be brought to the attention of scholars and politicians. If liberalism so understood has a methodological value and is not a collection of doctrines put together ad hoc at a given historical moment and then arbitrarily elevated as eternal theories, if modern liberalism is this, it can dialogue and open itself up to comparison with other movements that do not pretend in their turn to be representative of the entire reality, transforming themselves in philosophies of history. This is the case of the socialist movement. Liberalism is extremely exacting when it is a question of contesting and contrasting even with force (which is not mere violence) any political movement that proposes implicitly or explicitly to limit liberty, but is prepared to recognize the reasons of the adversary and to make them its own when they do not contrast with the fundamental regulatory principles. In our example, if socialism abandons, as it has already done in large part, the old Hegelian- Marxist trappings, as Croce defined them once, and transforms itself (or returns to its origins, as Croce says) into a movement for social and political emancipation of the least well-off, the workers, the disadvantaged, it will be able and will have to cooperate with liberalism.

This is Croce’s position and one should not be misled by the sharp and perhaps excessive polemics that he entertained with some representative of liberal-socialism and with some distinguished representatives of the Action party (azionismo), who moreover were often his pupils and his friends. These polemics, in fact, were dictated by contingent factors and by the exquisitely philosophical preoccupation of keeping the categories (liberty in this case) well distinct from the empirical concepts such as those of justice and democracy.

Naturally, what has been said for socialism also goes for other ethico-political movements with the exclusion of those, it is worth repeating it, decidedly totalitarian. Similar remarks can be made with respect to the great question of party legitimacy. If liberalism is a method, a general conception of life, then the parties, and the so-called political programs, cannot be absolutized and immobilized. They are judgments not prejudgments , as the title of one of Croce’s famous essay goes. They are concrete and empirical formations that are inspired by an ideal, that represents interests that must conform, every time, to the always new concrete historical conditions.

This mobility, which is not ambiguity, is the fundamental guarantee of liberty and democracy, and is the very foundation of responsibility, because an act is truly responsible if it is the result of a choice, and in those ideologies, in those parties that believe to be founded on absolute certainties, no choice is possible. Democracy can degenerate in totalitarianism if it absolutizes its principles by changing, for instance, the principle of majority in the tyranny of the majority.

Therefore, Croce’s liberalism represents a novelty within the sphere of traditional political philosophy. Critical literature on the subject is still slight and only recently one begins to be aware of the originality and the force of this aspect of Croce’s philosophical activity, not to be seen at all as secondary. But the crisis lived by liberalism, almost dragged in the vortex created by the collapse of the opposed totalitarianisms of our century, communism and fascism, will be a stimulus to seek and certainly to find new and more secure roads. Croce’s thought, while perhaps producing aporias and certainly pointing out new problems, proposes itself as a secure reference point for those who intend to defend and extend the right of citizenship, the rights of the individual, and to preserve and promote the cause of liberty.


The book has been translated from Italian, proofread and diligence in English by Professor Massimo Verdicchio of the University of Alberta, Canada


Chapter I - Chapter II - Chapter III - Chapter IV - Chapter V - Chapter VI - Chapter VII


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Emanuel Paparella2013-03-14 11:04:07
“…if socialism abandons, as it has already done in large part, the old Hegelian- Marxist trappings, as Croce defined them once, and transforms itself (or returns to its origins, as Croce says) into a movement for social and political emancipation of the least well-off, the workers, the disadvantaged, it will be able and will have to cooperate with liberalism.”

Ernesto, the above excerpt from chapter VI of your book is an insightful pregnant statement redolent of the novels of Ignazio Silone and especially his essay “Emergency Exit” which became integral part of the book The God that failed. In that essay Silone, not unlike Croce, makes the point that socialism is much older than Hegelian-Marxist-Leninist ideology and praxis. It is as old as the Biblical Acts of the Apostles which declares that “they loved each other and held everything in common” or closer at home the Franciscan order which follows the same theoretical and pragmatic prescription when it comes to the treatment of the poor and the downtrodden of this world. Indeed, when socialism returns to its origins and historical roots, it finds its genuine soul.

It is highly intriguing to me, for one, that the new Pope has taken the name of St. Francis of Assisi. A portent of things to come? One wonders.

ernesto paolozzi2013-03-15 01:07:21
Caro Emanuel,molto bello il tuo richiamo ad Ignazio Silone, conterraneo di Croce. La libertà è una categoria eterna, ma socialismo e cristianità affondano le loro radici storiche nell'eterna categoria dell'etica. Insomma tutto orbita attorno alla comune umanità, alla nostra essenza di esseri viventi. A San Pietro prima grande stupore, poi suggestiva attesa per il papa che osa chiamarsi Francesco. Per la prima volta nella storia millenaria della chiesa. Un atto di superbia o di umiltà? Certo, richiamarsi a San Francesco ci rasserena. Perchè il santo di Assisi non è solo il santo dei poveri ma anche il santo dell'amore per il creato, tutto il creato compresa nostra "sorella corporale morte". Chi sa cosa accadrà. Spero solo che non si risolva tutto in uno spettacolo massmediologico. Come il richiamo di un giornale inglese alla mano de Dios di Maradona. Come napoletano ho amato Mardona e prima di lui l'argentino Sivori. Il calcio, come diceva Pasolini è forse l'ultima rappresentazione sacra del Novecento. Ma io spero ancora che la religiosità, laica o non laica che sia, lo spirito religioso come dimensione etica prevalgano sulla miseria dello scetticismo e sull'orrore del totalitarismo.

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